Falling through the gaps: Focus on school exclusion long overdue

Written by: Anna Feuchtwang | Published:
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive, National Children’s Bureau

The renewed focus on issues of school exclusion and off-rolling is welcome. The time has come for schools and policy-makers to reflect on why the exclusions system seems to be going off the rails. Anna Feuchtwang explains

The Review of School Exclusions (Department for Education, 2019) has shone an important light on some of the more shadowy practices in our education system.

In the run-up to the publication of Edward Timpson’s review, the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) spoke to families on the receiving end of an exclusion. Some of these families, who almost exclusively had children with SEN, complained about procedural inconsistency and injustice.

Of course, in these cases, we did not have the opportunity to hear the school’s side of the story, or the stories of the excluded child’s peers who teachers are often seeking to protect.

But given the subsequent publication of Ofsted’s new Education Inspection Framework (Ofsted, 2019), which encourages school leaders to tackle the “gaming” of the system through practices like off-rolling, it is time for schools and policy-makers to reflect.

The government must ensure that schools have the support and resources required to work with our most vulnerable and challenging children so that they can help more of them complete their programme of study.

One of the problems facing schools and families is that pupils can experience school exclusion in many different ways and the language used to describe exclusions can itself be confusing.

In this context, it can be too easy for inappropriate exclusions to fall below the letter of the law.

Schools, parents, carers and pupils can all benefit from clear information about their legal powers and rights.

In response to this focus on exclusions, the NCB, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the Independent Parental Special Education Advice (IPSEA) have produced joint guidance (2019) which defines the different terms that are used to describe exclusions and what their legal basis is.

For example, in the case of informal or unofficial exclusions – when a pupil might be sent home to “cool off” – the guidance makes clear that this is never legal.

It states: “Informal or unofficial exclusions are always unlawful, even with the agreement of the pupil, parent or carer. To be lawful, the correct formal process must be followed including the exclusion being followed up in writing to the parent/carer informing them of their rights, including their right to representation.”

The guidance tackles all forms of exclusion, legal and illegal, including off-rolling, internal exclusion or isolation, managed moves, elective home education and more. It also signposts to further sources of support and help with issues relating to exclusions.

We hope headteachers will find the factsheet useful in reflecting on and reviewing how cases of exclusion are handled within their own school.

Edward Timpson’s exclusions review has suggested important measures designed to prevent the inappropriate use of the power to exclude and make practice across the country more uniform (SecEd, 2019).

Greater monitoring of schools’ use of alternative provision, better recording of why a child leaves a school, and stronger checks carried out during Ofsted inspections for off-rolling will all help to improve practice.

We welcome the government’s indication that they will accept these recommendations and I urge them to set out a clear timeframe for their implementation.

But the NCB is calling on the government to go further and to provide better support to schools – the vast majority of which only use exclusion as a last resort.

We want the Department for Education (DfE) to restate its commitment to a mainstream school system that values the worth and contribution of all children, and takes a whole-school approach to the good mental health and wellbeing of all children and school staff.

And the government should acknowledge that the rising numbers of exclusions are a symptom of wider problems that children’s services are facing – such as rising child poverty, a social care system that is on the brink of collapse, and less support for children with SEN.

The government must put children at the heart of the forthcoming 2019 Spending Review (the review is expected to be announced alongside this autumn’s Budget and will cover the three financial years 2020/21, 2021/22 and 2022/23).

Edward Timpson’s review of exclusions comes at crucial time for our most vulnerable children: permanent exclusions are on the rise, suspicions of off-rolling practices among a minority of schools are growing, an increasing number of children are being educated in pupil referral units, and an increasing number of parents are seeing home education as the only option for their child with SEN.

Vulnerable children have been falling through the gaps in our mainstream school system for too long now.
The time is now right for the government to set out a clear vision for meeting the needs of our most vulnerable learners.

This will help to win back the trust of children and families who have fallen foul of the system.

  • Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau.

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